Ari Aster has carved a path in Hollywood, known for his over-the-top style, which aims to tell unsettling tales typically centering around strong characters and relationships. What I seem to find so fascinating about Aster personally is how I, as an audience member, can relate to and derive important lessons post-viewing from the stories he decides to tell despite their fantastic nature. Whether it be a Swedish murder cult, a supernatural, child-possessing demon, or a son who has a little too much admiration for his father, there is always something compelling about the films of Ari Aster. I attribute this to the director's unique ability to take important topics that we face in our everyday lives and apply them to sensationalist narratives that follow cinema's fundamental rule: a movie must entertain. In doing such, Aster can hide his film's themes beneath the surface and, therefore, help the audience apply these themes to their own lives subconsciously. To understand the point I am making further, I would like to examine Aster's first short, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. The Strange Thing About The Johnsons by director Ari Aster aims to present a satirical depiction of rape and therefore create a scenario in which the audience feels a discomfort and subsequent understanding of rape victims, which can not be attained in a typical dramatic representation of the subject matter due to our inherent desensitization to it.
A Message Under The Surface
In the 2010 film Inception, Christopher Nolan explores a similar idea to how Aster thematically structures his films. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio's character Cobb is tasked with planting an idea in the mind of Fischer, a young businessman, to dissolve his father's electric company. Cobb plans to accomplish his task by inserting himself into Fischer's dreams and convincing him that he indeed would like to dissolve the enterprise. The issue for Cobb, however, is that to plant the idea in Fischer's mind, he must make Fischer feel as though the idea was his own, to begin with. This is paramount to how Ari Aster develops the themes in his stories. By hiding his message under layers of entertainment, formal cinematic elements, and compelling narratives, he can convince the audience that after the initial viewing, the lessons derived from the picture were of their own creation and analysis, rather than that of the writer/director.
In fact, a study featured in the Harvard Gazette on September 4, 2019, penned by Harvard staff writer Peter Ruelle may be proof of this exact theory. The study was designed to explore the differences between information retained through active and passive learning. To test this, an experiment was created in which students participating in a 15 week Harvard physics course would be separated into two groups; one would listen to a traditionally polished lecture, and the other would participate in active learning exercises. Results showed that students "scored higher on tests following the active learning sessions." Interestingly, students were not aware of this change; in fact, "when the results were tallied, the authors found that students felt as if they learned more from the lectures."
If we apply the results of the experiment to one of the director's first films, Hereditary, we may see why Aster takes the approach he does. In Hereditary, Ari Aster tells the story of a family who struggles with the passing of their grandmother and the supernatural events which unfold in the wake of her funeral. This high-stakes, slow-burn horror flick is designed to teach its audience lessons related to familial relationships. However, Aster hides the film's themes under such a sensationalist narrative that audiences are required to work harder to find the message of the film themselves.
Aster uses this same technique in The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. His narrative, which focuses on a son who rapes his father, distracts the audience from the film's themes and messages, forcing them to actively seek it out. Therefore, the movie's message appears stronger and more likely to be imprinted into the audience's subconscious.
Desensitazation in Cinema
I decided to explore The Strange Thing About The Johnsons rather than one of Ari Aster's other films because it is his most clear example of the aforementioned techniques and is, therefore, a better case study to explore them. In this film, audiences are meant to explore the theme of sexual violence. The question then becomes, how does one make a film both relatable to the victims of such a crime while also making it educational to those who have not experienced this form of trauma? Ari Aster's answer is to take the topic and exaggerate the taboo elements it explores. The idea of incest in the state which it takes in the picture, a son who rapes his father, and not the other way around, is inherently discomforting and sensationalist. When researching child rape statistics, one will find the usual numbers: 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of childhood sexual abuse; however, in my research, I was unable to find even one example of a child who had raped their parent, thereby proving its rarity.
I believe the reason Aster takes this approach to the narrative is our inherent desensitization to the topic. Sexual violence in media is heavily reported on. Unfortunately, this is due to societal issues which make rape and sexual assault such a big issue in our society to begin with; therefore, when I say that the media is oversaturated with stories relating to rape and sexual violence, I am not saying it is without good reason, in fact, I would go as far as to say that these cases are heavily underreported. However, the point stands that the depiction of these situations causes desensitization to the topics. A study reported on by Professor Peter Reuell of the University of California, Santa Barbara, which examines desensitization to sexual violence, explores similar theories. In the journal's abstract, Reuell describes an experiment in which participants were exposed to sexually violent media over the course of three days; he later writes that "emotional response [to sexually violent content], self-reported physiological arousal, and ratings of the extent to which the films were sexually violent all diminished with repeated film exposure. Three days following exposure to the final film, experimental participants expressed significantly less sympathy for domestic violence victims, and rated their injuries as less severe, than did a no-exposure comparison group."
Therefore, it is only by playing to the taboo nature of other topics, such as incest, that Aster can create a strong emotional response to sexual violence in his audience. Once again, he hides his central theme in more sensationalist narratives. However, if we look at The Strange Thing About The Johnsons more closely, it is apparent that all traditional elements of sexual violence are present. Take, for example, the film's climax, when Sidney Johnson's son tries to gaslight his father into believing that the events that are occurring are a result of Sidney's own mental perversion, rather than his son's unacceptable actions. These are the hidden messages about sexual assault which Aster places in the short. He takes sensationalist elements from his narrative and mixes them with real-life parallels, which are ever-present in sexual assault situations in a giant melting pot to create a story that is both entertaining in its shock value while also sneaking the lessons, themes, and messages in through our subconscious back door.
There is something to be learned from the way that Ari Aster thematically structures his narratives. He uses hyperbolized plots and characters to distract the audience from the messages and themes he conveys. It has been proven through several studies that this is the only way to, indeed, subvert an audience's desensitization and fatigue of the subject matter, which is being explored and successfully convey what the film is trying to say. It is essential to look at the example which Aster has set and understand its connections to modern cinema as-well-as the films of other students (The Strange Thing About The Johnsons was produced as Ari Aster's thesis for AFI) and how it sets the stage for the way a good storyteller experiments with themes and unique, exciting narrative.
Mullin, Charles & Linz, Daniel. (1995). Desensitization and Resensitization to Violence Against Women: Effects of Exposure to Sexually Violent Films on Judgments of Domestic Violence Victims. Journal of personality and social psychology. 69. 449-59. 10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1249.
Reuell, Peter. “Study Shows That Students Learn More When Taking Part in Classrooms That Employ Active-Learning Strategies.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard University, 5 Sept. 2019, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/.